FAQ: Nuclear weapons and Russia
The invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and Putin’s subsequent decision to put nuclear weapons on a higher alert alert level, demonstrate the urgency to rid the world of these weapons of mass destruction. Security does not come from nuclear deterrence, a dangerous theory, but from nuclear disarmament. These are some frequently asked questions regarding Russia, nuclear weapons and the role of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in moving us beyond the nuclear status quo.
Russia has threatened to use nuclear weapons. What does this mean?
- Russia and the United States possess around 92% of the world’s nuclear weapons between them. Russia has close to 6000 and the US has close to 5,500 nuclear weapons.
- Both Russia and the US keep over 1500 of their nuclear weapons deployed, on high-alert status, meaning they can be used within minutes.
- President Putin’s decision to bring weapons to combat readiness indicates an escalation of this already dangerous situation and represents an elevated threat.
- No other nuclear-armed state has to date threatened to use nuclear weapons in response to Russia’s positioning.
- NATO’s expansion since the end of the Cold War, and the hosting of US nuclear weapons in European countries, is seen by Russia as a threat. Russia was promised that NATO would not expand, but this was never drawn up into a legally-binding treaty.
- In Ukraine, as in several other parts of Europe after the Cold War ended, various ethnic groups are concerned about their minority status. Resolving their grievances peacefully, for example via the Minsk Accords, is an urgent necessity.
- Nuclear weapons should have been eliminated at the end of the Cold War. This unfinished business means that nuclear weapons could easily be used again. All the nuclear weapon states were irresponsible by continuing to hold these weapons when the Cold War ended.
Doesn’t this prove nuclear weapons bestow power? No.
- The dangerous policy of so-called nuclear deterrence has not stopped the continued invasion of Ukraine by Russia. On previous occasions also, the possession of nuclear weapons has not prevented attacks on their possessors.
- This policy – a Cold War relic – does not keep the peace; it simply raises the stakes for complete destruction.
- Most states in the world manage their security relations with others without owning nuclear weapons, and without threatening to annihilate millions of innocent civilians.
- If nuclear-allied or nuclear-armed nations engage in conflict, the risk of nuclear weapons use will increase again. If this occurs, there are no winners.
- Nuclear weapons are now illegal under international law and as such are increasingly viewed as inhumane and unacceptable weapons.
- The international community has a critical role to play in demonstrating that the hosting, assistance, possession, use or threat of use of nuclear weapons by any state will not be tolerated. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons outlaws all of these activities.
- The nuclear arsenals of NATO states have not deterred Russia from invading Ukraine, and they have made their possessors vulnerable to coercion.
- The risks associated with a “nuclear deterrence” posture are unacceptable for all nations.
- The more nuclear weapons that exist, the further global security is undermined.
Would this be happening if Ukraine hadn’t given up its nuclear weapons when the Soviet Union broke up?
- When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 there were thousands of former Soviet nuclear warheads left on Ukraine’s territory, which it decided to transfer to Russia. Ukraine never had control of those nuclear weapons, or its own nuclear arsenal.
- Ukraine decided to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear state in 1994 and by 2001 all of the nuclear weapons it had hosted were transferred to Russia to be dismantled and all launch silos decommissioned.
- There is little convincing historical evidence that the possession or presence of nuclear weapons definitively prevents conflict, when many other variables are considered, including the prohibition of the use of force under the UN Charter or even just luck.
- Even beyond this, we do know that the possession of nuclear weapons by Russia and the United States clearly has not prevented the threat of conflict between Russia and a U.S. ally.
What about the nuclear-armed and nuclear-hosting NATO states?
- Five European nations host US nuclear weapons: Germany, Belgium, Turkey, Italy and the Netherlands.
- Further, France and the United Kingdom possess their own arsenals of 290 and 225 nuclear weapons, respectively.
- The stationing of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe, as well as Russia’s own short-range nuclear weapons systems designed for European targets, elevates the risk of nuclear weapon use in any conflict in the region.
- The stationing of Russian nuclear weapons in other countries would only further heighten tensions and increase the risks of use.
- At this stage, no nuclear-armed states have made counter-threats to Putin’s latest nuclear threats.
What just happened in Belarus?
- Belarus’ original Constitution committed the country to being neutral and free of nuclear weapons.
- The recent referendum means Belarus will renounce its non-nuclear status, allowing nuclear weapons to be placed on its territory.
- The referendum supposedly passed with 65% in favour. However, as Belarus does not have free and fair elections, it is hard to present the outcome as the will of the people.
- Belarus President Lukashenko – a Putin ally – reiterated that he will allow Putin to station Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus if US nuclear weapons are deployed in Eastern Europe.
- This threat and change of policy represents another step backwards for global efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons.
What is the role of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?
- Thankfully, the majority of nations worldwide are nuclear weapons-free and do not endorse the nuclear weapons of another state.
- The states parties of the TPNW have committed never to possess, host, threaten to use or assist with the use of nuclear weapons. This is a recognition of the inhumane nature of nuclear weapons and the unparalleled destruction that would come with their use.
- Along with regional nuclear weapon free zones and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the TPNW is an important tool to leverage international pressure on all states that host, possess or threaten to use nuclear weapons.
- The Australian Government rightly condemns nuclear war threats made by President Putin, but its own national defence policy supports the use of nuclear weapons by the US on its behalf. Australia should end this double standard by ceasing the policy of “extended nuclear deterrence” and joining the TPNW.
What would happen if nuclear weapons were used by Russia or another nuclear-armed state like the US?
- The launch of nuclear weapons can happen accidentally, or as an unintended action. Once hostilities erupt, maintaining control over war strategies can easily be lost, and escalation can occur quickly, with devastating results.
- Even the use of a ‘few’ nuclear weapons – by any state – would be disastrous. Some nuclear weapons today are hundreds of times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Millions of people would be killed immediately and more would die later. Providing medical assistance to those who survive would be almost impossible. Urban and rural environments would be destroyed beyond recognition.
- If a state responded by retaliating with its own nuclear weapons, these catastrophic impacts would be multiplied, and could lead to an all-out nuclear war and potentially, the destruction of our planet.
- The leaders of all nine nuclear states have said, at various times, that they will use their nuclear weapons. This is unacceptable. For these reasons, we must abolish all of these terrifying weapons.
- Fantasy Counterfactual: a Nuclear-Armed Ukraine, Maria Rost-Rublee
- The Ukraine crisis could trigger a nuclear catastrophe, Tilman Ruff